10/15/2002 12:00AM

Think outright winner before spread

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LAS VEGAS - Picking NFL games against the spread is very difficult.

Parity is partly to blame, as there's not much difference between the top and bottom teams, at least on "any given Sunday," as the saying goes. Add to that the lines are much more solid for NFL than for college games, and it's plain to see why the sports books see pro games as an annual moneymaker.

Actually, the point spread in the NFL doesn't come into play that often. For example, through the first five weeks of the season, only 11 of the 74 games (less than 15 percent) saw the favorite win but not cover.

That trend saw a bit of a reversal in week 6, as two of the nine early games this past Sunday were won by non-covering favorites, with a third that should have counted as such. The Colts (-7) beat the Ravens 22-20, the Cowboys (-2) beat the Panthers 14-13 and the Bills (-7) beat the Texans 31-24.

Those lines are the closing ones at the Stardust. That last game is graded as a push because I use the Stardust as the sports book of record, since it is the first to post football lines in Vegas. The line closed at 7 1/2 at most books, however, and by virtue of the line opening at 9 1/2 at the Stardust, it's clear that a ton of money was bet on the Texans to lower it past 9, 8 1/2, 8, 7 1/2, and down to 7. The vast majority of Texans bettors didn't push, and a very high percentage of Colts backers (myself included) were on the losing end and wish they had gotten a push.

In the afternoon games, the Chargers also fell short as a 3-point favorite in a 35-34 win over the Chiefs to become of the fourth non-covering favorite of the day.

But despite this anomaly in week 6, it still pays to find the straight-up winner and you will likely be cashing a pointspread ticket as well. But if you have been in any office pool or football contest this season, you know that picking straight-up winners in the NFL isn't always as easy as it seems, either.

More NFL betting trends

Underdogs went 8-5-1 in week 6 (keeping in mind that the push was another underdog winner in most cases) and are now 53-32 (62.4 percent) with three pushes.

The only true push of the NFL season so far was the Saints' 32-29 win as a 3-point favorite over the Steelers in week 5. The other misleading push was the 49ers' 20-10 win over the Redskins in Week 3 when the pointspread was lower than 10 all week until the day of the game.

Home dogs had their first losing week of the season, going 2-3-1. The underdog Rams and Titans won outright vs. the Raiders and Jaguars, respectively. The Redskins, Bengals, and Seahawks failed in the role. For the season, home dogs are still a profitable 18-13-1 (58.1 percent) against the spread, 19-13 if you count the Texans as a non-push. This week's home dogs are the Chiefs (+3) vs. the Broncos and the Lions (+3) vs. the Bears.

A reversal of fortune was also seen with the NFC winning and covering all three interconference games of the week, as the Packers beat the Patriots, the Rams beat the Raiders, and the Buccaneers beat the Browns. That lowered the AFC's pointspread record to 12-10-1. This week's only interconference game is the Vikings-Jets, and that game will not settle anything as far as conference dominance is concerned.

With the Raiders and Jaguars losing last Sunday, there are no teams either undefeated or winless against the spread. Every team also has had at least one over. The Bills, Saints, and Lions have gone over in all of their games.

The NFL is still on a record scoring pace, but the over went only 6-8 this past week and is 47-40 (54 percent) for the season.

Tracking college team trends

Kansas St. is 43-18 (70.5 percent) against the spread at home over the past 10 years. This Saturday, the Wildcats are laying 1 1/2 points vs. Texas.

Another Big 12 team, Iowa St., is dominant on the road. They are 11-3 (78.6 percent) with one push in their last 15 road games. The Cyclones are getting a tempting 9 points at No. 2-ranked Oklahoma this week.

The visitor has covered the last 10 games in the Vanderbilt-Georgia series. Vandy has a lot of room for error as they're getting 26 points at Georgia this week.

In the NFL, the Dolphins are 15-5 (75 percent) at home since coach Dave Wannstedt took over two years ago, but with Ray Lucas replacing the injured Jay Fiedler at QB, they could be hard-pressed to cover the 4-point spread against the Bills this Sunday.

College bankroll makes comeback

After starting a dismal 5-10 in college picks this season, I have bounced back with three straight 3-1 weeks to get back on the plus side of the ledger.

I won 2-unit bets on California +12 1/2 (a spread-covering 30-28 loss to USC) and Washington St. -7 (a 36-11 winner over Stanford), and a 1-unit bet on Kansas St. -14 (an easy 44-9 win over Oklahoma St.). My lone setback was a 2-unit play on Pittsburgh +7 1/2 (a 14-6 loss at Notre Dame).

Despite that half-point loss, the college bankroll went 3-1 for a net profit of 2.8 units (based on laying 1.1 units for every 1 unit I was trying to win) and is now 14-13 on the season for a net profit of 1.1 units.

The news isn't so good in the NFL. It's sad when you hit your biggest bet of the day and still lose money. I won my first 3-unit bet of the season on the Rams at +8 1/2 against the Raiders (a 28-13 Rams win), but then I went 0-6 on my other plays, losing with the Patriots, the Packers-Patriots over, the Bills (by a half-point), the Colts, the Broncos and the Saints-Redskins over

That was a net loss of 3.6 units on the day, dropping my NFL record to a subpar 26-31 for a net loss of 7.5 units.